Super PACs are required to disclose their donors, but by launching a new super PAC just before an election, political actors are able to leave voters in the dark about who is trying to influence them.
Emboldened by ancient disclosure rules, two of these “pop-up” super PACs are attempting to boost support for Libertarian Senate candidates to siphon off votes from Republican incumbents.
That’s a continuation of a trend in the 2020 election cycle where super PACs meddled in several high-profile primaries while keeping their donors secret. These groups spent at least $39.5 million to influence primaries in the 2020 election cycle without disclosing their donors to primary voters. Now, brand new super PACs are emerging to influence closely watched general election contests.
With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, a brand new super PAC called Liberty SC spent more than $1 million to attack Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) with mailers and TV ads that aim to prop up Libertarian candidate Bill Bledsoe as the “only true conservative on the ballot.” The mailers cite Graham’s decision to vote for Supreme Court justices Elana Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, who have upheld abortion rights, and his past statements praising Joe Biden. Another ad attacks Graham for urging constituents to wear a mask and appears to make reference to the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory.
Graham is running for reelection in a reliably red state, but he’s facing a unique problem. Polls show conservative Republicans — still stung by Graham’s attacks on Trump during the 2016 primaries — are willing to vote for Bledsoe over the GOP nominee. They’re still considering it even after Bledsoe dropped out of the race and endorsed Graham in early October.
By launching its first ads on Oct. 21, Liberty SC will not have to report its donors until long after voters go to the polls. That’s because the final Federal Election Commission filing before Election Day required groups to report their donors if they spent money from Oct. 1 to Oct. 14. By simply launching a new group after that date, big-money political actors can conceal their sources of funding.
Other than Democrats’ obvious motivation to elevate a third-party candidate over Graham, a small hint appears to tie Liberty SC to a Democratic effort. Amalgamated Bank, the go-to bank for Democratic groups and candidates, handles its finances.
In Kentucky, Democrats are making an apparent attempt to boost Libertarian Senate candidate Brad Barron to pull away votes from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The newly launched super PAC True Kentucky Patriots aired a 30-second spot that says Barron is the “true conservative” in the race. The group, which was launched Oct. 14 and is not required to disclose its donors before Election Day, has spent $636,000 backing Barron.
True Kentucky Patriots is not a conservative group. It shares its treasurer with Ditch Fund, a hybrid PAC supporting Democratic nominee Amy McGrath, the Daily Beast reported. Ditch Fund, also known as Ditch Mitch, was one of the first groups to jump into the Kentucky Senate race. It’s since spent over $10 million backing McGrath and attacking McConnell.
These kinds of astroturf campaigns are increasingly common, and they’re emboldened by antiquated reporting rules that leave voters in the dark about the intentions of groups behind inflammatory political ads. Super PACs are incredibly easy to launch, and election experts say it would be easy for super PACs to disclose their donors more often than they currently do, but Congress has not strengthened reporting rules that are more than four decades old.
Pop-up PACs were a force in primary elections this year. Almost two dozen groups that spent significant sums to influence primary races didn’t disclose their donors before Election Day.
The Kansas Senate GOP primary saw $8.6 million from two pop-up PACs, Sunflower State and Plains PAC, which turned out to be funded by political party-aligned groups. Under the guise of a conservative group, national Democrats spent big to support Republican Kris Kobach — seen as the weakest, most controversial candidate who could swing the general election to Democrats — while Republicans boosted the eventual nominee, Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.).
McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund used an obscure super PAC called Faith and Power PAC to meddle in the North Carolina Senate Democratic primary to support a progressive hopeful over Democrats’ preferred candidate, Cal Cunningham. In response, mysterious super PAC Carolina Blue popped up to defend Cunningham with a $4.5 million ad buy. Long after primary voters chose Cunningham, the super PAC revealed it was funded entirely by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC.
Let’s Turn Colorado Blue, meanwhile, attacked Democratic Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff with a late $1.5 million ad campaign. Those ads aided Democrats’ preferred candidate, former Gov. John Hickenlooper. After the election, the group revealed it was funded by Majority Forward, a “dark money” group aligned with Schumer.
Some groups game disclosure deadlines to avoid revealing key donors who might be embarrassing to the candidate they’re supporting. In the heated Massachusetts Senate Democratic primary, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) was forced to answer allegations that a super PAC supporting him was funded by his father.
Kennedy said he didn’t know whether his father was backing New Leadership PAC, which spent $4 million supporting his campaign. On Sept. 20, weeks after voters chose Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), new filings revealed the super PAC was funded by a $2 million donation from the campaign account of Kennedy’s father.
These pop-up PACs showed up during the presidential primaries, too. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) found it difficult to explain why she’d reversed her strong opposition to super PACs just before Super Tuesday, as a new group called Persist PAC emerged to spend $14.8 million backing her candidacy. It would have been even harder for her to defend the fact that Persist PAC got the vast majority of its money from one wealthy donor, California physician Karla Jurvetson. Voters didn’t learn of that until March 20, long after Warren had already dropped out.
Some groups don’t qualify as pop-up PACs because they disclose small amounts of funding ahead of an election. But they’re still hiding the vast majority of their funding sources from voters. The newly launched Maine Way PAC has reported two donors — leadership PACs tied to McConnell and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) — giving a total of $90,000. But the super PAC has spent nearly $3.6 million attacking Democratic Senate candidate Sara Gideon in the key Maine Senate race.
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Karl joined the Center for Responsive Politics in October 2018. As CRP’s money-in-politics reporter, he writes and edits stories for the news section and helps manage a team of diligent writers. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Karl graduated from State University of New York at New Paltz in 2016 with a B.A. in journalism. He previously worked at The Globe, a regional newspaper based in Worthington, Minnesota. His email is [email protected]
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